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Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at SFMOMA

Diane Arbus, Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C., 1956. Gelatin silver print, 14¼ x 17¼ in. (36 x 44 cm). PHOTO: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus, 2007

Through april 30, the san Francisco Museum of Modern Art presents an exhibition featuring the first seven years of Diane Arbus’s career as a photographer of subjects that confront our sense of normalcy. Her black-and-white portraits of New Yorkers feature individuals and their eccentricities, often with a sense of unease and alienation.

Arbus, a lifelong New Yorker, worked in Times Square, the Lower East Side, and Coney Island, where she focused her aim at the people who contributed to her powerful signature style. Street performers, unusual beauties, disheveled children, and stern-faced adults are all treated with a kind of objectivity that makes her photographs believable. Each image seems to tell a story that the viewer invents during the dreamlike process of taking in Arbus’s surreal cast of characters. We, the viewers, learn more about ourselves and our assumptions in the process.

This early period, from 1956 to 1962, represents nearly half of the photographs that Arbus printed in her lifetime. Having abandoned commercial photography, (Arbus and her husband, Allan, had contributed fashion photography to magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar), Arbus and her portraits were seen as a part of a new movement of documentary photographers, which included other New York photographers such as Garry Winogrand.

SFMOMA has an ongoing dedication to the artist reaching back to the groundbreaking exhibition Diane Arbus Revelations in 2003–04. Corey Keller, curator of photography at SFMOMA, says, “Arbus made some of the most potent photographs of the 20th century, and this exhibition provides a unique opportunity to consider the origins of her vision and to explore a tremendously rich but largely unfamiliar body of early work.” This exhibition includes some lesser known early works including Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957, Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957-58 and The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961.

The exhibition will be on view at the museum’s new Pritzker Center for Photography. SFMOMA has been collecting and exhibiting photography since its founding in 1935, one of the first to acknowledge photography as a museum-worthy art form. Most of the photographs included in the exhibition are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s vast Diane Arbus archive, a gift from the artist’s daughters. An additional gallery is devoted to artists Arbus admired along with her contemporaries in New York such as Walker Evans, Winogrand, Weegee, and Lee Friedlander.

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning: Fri.–Tue. 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (Thursday until 9 p.m.) through April. 30; $25; Pritzker Center for Photography, SFMOMA, 151 Third Street; 415-357-4000,

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at